René Marie – I Wanna Be Evil – with love to Eartha Kitt
(Motéma 233783. CD Review by Sebastian Scotney)
There’s definitely a buzz about René Marie, I’m hearing confident predictions that she will be one of the revelations of the Guiness (Cork) and EFG (London) Jazz Festivals this winter. On the strength of listening to this new CD I Wanna Be Evil (Motema), a studio album in which her personality, massive stage energy and musicality come across with extraordinary vividness, it would be hard to disagree.
First a fact-check. Her full name is René Marie Stevens. She was born in Warrenton, Virginia in 1955, but only started to sing professionally in 1999, around the Washington DC area. The new album, bearing the subtitle “with love to Eartha Kitt” – her website states that it’s her tenth – was recorded at Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Marie remembers the impact of first seeing Eartha Kitt as Catwoman in the TV series as a child: “Do you know what that does to a 10-year old girl living in the Bible Belt [..] it creates a lifelong yearning..no craving..for something else”. Others have chosen to dig up the past, dwelt on the pain, suffering, racism and abuse which Kitt and her family endured, notably in a recent biography (reviewed here), but this tribute by René Marie avoids all that, and concentrates on celebrating the sheer magnetism of a performer whom Orson Welles cast as Helen of Troy and once described as the “most exciting woman in the world” .
The main JALC presence on the album – and, I admit, the only name familiar to me until now – is that of JALC stalwart, larger-than-life trombonist, reigning king of the plunger mute Wycliffe Gordon. He is completely stunning, duetting with on Cole Porter’s Let’s Do It, where a quaint Edwardian verse about the entreaties of the bluebird ushers in a rootsy, sensual, sexual, primal, growling, snarling version in triple time of the 1928 song, in which the message eventually gets stripped down for action to a basic, re-iterated, dare one say ‘earthy’ “I just wanna do it.”
Other players on the album are the clarinet/sax/flute of the Australian-born Adrian Cunningham. The recording catches his soft-toned clarinet beautifully. The rhythm team of Quentin Baxter (drums, percussion, washboard); Kevin Bales (piano); and Elias Bailey (bass) who work with her regularly are all impressive throughout.
Other highlights include an innuendo-loaded Dave Frishberg Peel Me a Grape and a ‘kittenish’ (sorry these old puns keep coming) Dear John, a song which Marie describes in her liner notes a describes as having been the hardest challenge on the album.
Marie has taken on the challenge to be as “fiery sensual and clever” as Eartha Kitt, and has risen to that challenge. But it should also be emphasized how innately musical Marie is, whether singing ‘in’ the notes, or deliberately ‘out’. There is enough variety in phrasing to call this album a masterclass.
If this is what René Marie can do in a studio, the live experience will be quite unforgettable.